Romance and Political Intrigue Abound in THE RUSSIA HOUSE

by Frank Calvillo

Looking at the bibliography of John La Carre’s vast library of titles not only leads to a wealth of compelling stories set against the backdrop of politics and espionage, but also the realization that so many of them have provided the source material for some of the greatest motion pictures to ever delve in such an arena. While The Russia House isn’t ranked on the same level as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the film represents the very best of what has made La Carre’s work so perfect for the big screen. The film contains the glamour of Hollywood through its magnetic stars engaging in a deeply romantic plot, while also offering up a political tug of war that’s every inch as compelling as some of the author’s most well-known works. It’s doubtful if the film could be made today on the same scale with both ideologies, but Twilight Time’s release of The Russia House harkens back to a time when it could, which in its own way is cause for celebration.

In The Russia House, an alcoholic book publisher named Barley Blair (Sean Connery), who has seen better days, is sent a manuscript by a Russian book editor named Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer), given to her by a radical revolutionary named Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer). The manuscript attracts the attention of both the CIA and British Intelligence, who quickly send the disinterested Barley over to Moscow to ensure its authenticity by finding out as much as he can through Katya. When the two begin to fall in love, Barley’s loyalty and motives are questioned.

Since the film’s screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, so much of The Russia House plays out like a stage production in the scenes featuring members of British Intelligence (headed by the steely Michael Kitchen) and CIA bigwigs (led by the great Roy Scheider and the always dependable John Mahoney) battling it out about what should be done with Dante’s manuscript and the powerful and highly classified content it possesses. From the way these scenes are set up to the way the actors are placed, The Russia House becomes a piece of theater which thankfully never overstays its welcome thanks to the on-point performances and the always-intriguing dialogue.

However, most modern audiences electing to watch The Russia House will do so in the hopes of witnessing an old-fashioned love story, which the film is more than happy to provide. The potency of the film’s romance lies in the idea of two people from completely different cultures, walks of life, hopes, and fears coming together and forming an undeniably powerful connection. It helps that the script provides the two main actors with such sumptuous lines which symbolize the strength of their love and the power of great romantic screenwriting. Such instances include the moment when Barley says to Katya, “All of my failings were preparation for meeting you,” as well as the moment where he solidifies his love by declaring to her, “You are my only country now.” During these scenes there’s not a person watching The Russia House who doesn’t feel the romance, or at least wants to.

As the two leads, Connery and Pfeiffer turn in performances completely uncharacteristic of anything they had attempted up to that point. Connery abandons any trace of the suave debonair man which became his famous screen persona to play someone who has all but checked out from life, only to be pulled back in. His willingness to sink into the head of such a man results in one of the best performances of his career. Likewise Pfeiffer reveals another level to her range, playing a woman from a completely different culture and playing her so accurately. In Pfeiffer’s hands, we see and understand Katya’s frustrations with her country and society and the drive within her to risk everything for the better.

Connery and Pfeiffer are well-aided by a collection of great actors, such as Schieder, Mahoney, Kitchen, and Brandauer, all of whom provide more than solid support and help bringThe Russia House’s many complex themes to the surface.

One day during the film’s shoot, Pfeiffer became enraged at the fact that the entire cast and crew were allowed to eat the hot bowls of spaghetti provided by craft services, but none of the extras were since it was against the law for Russian actors to enjoy such amenities from an American crew. Angered by this fact, Pfeiffer reportedly stopped filming and called it a day. That night in her hotel room, she quietly reflected and came to the conclusion that it was wrong for an American to come over to a foreign land and force Western ideologies upon it and resumed work the following day without complaint. It may seem trivial, but in a way, such an act was so indicative of the character she was playing and she reason she risks her life by challenging ideas and striving for something better.

The Package
 A vintage behind-the-scenes featurette titled Building The Russia House, along with the original theatrical trailer, accompany the disc’s release.

The Lowdown
 Described as “cinematic caviar” when first released, The Russia House still carries the same level of sophisticated intrigue and romance which has always made the film so entrancing.

The Russia House is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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